Bill Gates, Harvard’s most successful dropout, will finally receive a degree from the University when he delivers the keynote Commencement address for newly minted graduates on June 7.
The chairman and former chief executive of Microsoft, which he began before leaving Harvard in 1975, Gates parlayed a knack for computer science into the world’s largest fortune. He has committed the bulk of that wealth to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, his leading philanthropic organization.
Harvard officials, who planned to announce the selection today, said Gates will speak in Tercentenary Theatre on the afternoon of Commencement, the annual graduation ceremony. He will also receive an honorary degree from the University, said Jack P. Reardon ’60, executive director of the Harvard Alumni Association.
Gates moved into Wigglesworth Hall A-11 in 1973. He preferred poker to problem sets, rarely attended class, ran into trouble with the Administrative Board, and dropped out in his sophomore year.
He met Steven A. Ballmer ’77, now Microsoft’s chief executive, in their freshman year, and the two lived on the same floor in Currier House.
“Steve and I would pay very little attention to our classes and then furiously inhale the key books just before an exam,” Gates recalled in a 1995 autobiography. A member of the Fox Club, Gates has said he was as a loner at Harvard who rarely slept, “sitting around in my room being a philosophical depressed guy, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life.”
The circumstances of his departure from Harvard have long been a point of contention. Gates was disciplined by the Ad Board for conducting commercial business on the University’s computers, but he maintains that he left voluntarily in 1975 because, “I wasn’t sure the window of opportunity for starting up a software company would open again.”
Gates wasn’t available for an interview yesterday, and a spokesman for Microsoft said he didn’t have information on Gates’ time at Harvard.
Though this will be Gates’ first Commencement, Harvard considers him a member of the Class of 1977, which will celebrate its 30th reunion during Commencement week. The reunion was moved from October to June without explanation, and Class Secretary Alex Hilt ’77 declined to comment yesterday on whether Gates’ speech was the cause.
Gates is a major donor to the University. In 1996, he and Ballmer contributed $25 million to construct the computer-science building Maxwell Dworkin, which bears their mothers’ maiden names.
Earlier this month, Forbes estimated Gates’ wealth at $56 billion. He has led the magazine’s annual survey of billionaires since 1993.
The Gates Foundation, which primarily funds health and anti-poverty programs in the developing world, boasts an endowment of $33 billion. Harvard researchers are a frequent recipient of the foundation’s grants.
The other highly anticipated speaking engagement over Commencement week, for the College’s Class Day on June 6, has yet to be announced.
—Staff writer Zachary M. Seward can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.